Friday, November 30, 2012

Mushroom Season

Full Death Moon

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It is distinctly winter here in Portland. I spent these weeks around Thanksgiving dog sitting for a number of families and have been very busy getting a whole pack of dogs tired, work that means hiking in the woods and fields every day. The days have been cold and wet, but some more cold and more wet than others. Some even sunny lately. They say if you don't like the weather in Oregon just wait a few minutes. With about five weeks of rainy weather behind us, the ground is getting saturated and the trails are starting to get muddy - muddy trail season is a distinct time of year in my lived calendar. The days are short with the sun coming up just after 7 and it being quite dark by 5pm but my "work" has had me outside about as much as I want each day, a real luxury this time of year. 

Hoyt Arboretum Mushrooms
The cool and wet weather is bringing out a special kind of wildlife in the woods of Western Oregon - the mushroom. Every walk this last week has brought me strange and amazing visions of the fungal world. Tall and skinny mushrooms, fat little toadstools, shelf fungus firm, frilly, white and brown, entire logs covered in mushrooms and mushrooms shooting out of the leaf litter under the trees. Some logs have patches of fungus growing on them that seem to ooze a deep red liquid and others collect drops of water like a jeweled crown. The diversity of forms is really mind blowing even just in the small areas and single ecosystem I have been exploring.

What we call mushrooms are the fruiting bodies of fungus that live in soil, rotting wood or some other substrate. Fungus is one of the five major categories of life (the others being bacteria, protists, plants and animals) and despite their outward similarity with plants, they are actually more closely related to animals in many ways. Mushrooms, a specific kind of fungus, can be found in an astonishing array of habitats and are vitally important parts of their ecosystems. They are decomposers, breaking down plant and animal material to get at the nutrients inside and in the process release those nutrients back into the environment for other plants and animals to use. The mushrooms we see sprouting out of logs and forest duff are actually just a tiny part of a huge organism that impregnates the wood or soil. The mycelium, the internal filament like structure of the fungus, spreads out and eats away at the material the fungus is growing in and only creates the fruiting body for a couple days or a couple weeks at most. 
Shelf Fungus in Forest Park

Mushrooms fascinate me. They are mysterious and unlike other living creatures I know in really fundamental ways. Many of the websites I've checked out recently to learn about them use the word cryptic to discuss their life cycle and habits. They inhabit the deep part of the forest but create these amazing and beautiful bodies that push out into the light and they do that so quickly that the English language uses their name, mushroom, to describe something that multiplies almost too fast to be measured. They are an important part of cleaning up the detritus of a forest, making sure nutrients are recycled for reuse and many are eaten by other forest creatures. Some species are even eaten by humans while others are important medicines, some are so poisonous they kill almost instantly and some do other crazy things to our brain chemistry. They are deep, dark forest magic. Not like us at all, but vital members of their communities.

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Mushrooms Berkeley 

A classic recipe from the Vegetarian Epicure by Anna Thomas. Described as such "The mushrooms and peppers will be very dark and evil looking, but irresistible in flavor and aroma."

1 lb mushrooms, halved

1 medium bell peppers, cut in 1-inch squares
1 onion, peeled and chopped
1/2 c butter


2 T Dijon mustard
2 T Worcestershire sauce
1/2 c brown sugar (or less)
3/4 c mellow red table wine
Fresh ground black pepper
Seasoned salt

Melt butter and saute onions till clear.

While sauteing make sauce. Mix together mustard, brown sugar, and Worcestershire sauce till perfectly smooth. Add the wine, season with lots of fresh ground pepper, seasoned salt to taste. Stir well

When onion is clear, add the mushrooms and peppers and saute. As the mushrooms begin to brown and reduce in size, add the sauce.

Now simmer at medium for about 45 minutes or till sauce is reduced and thickened. Serve over steak, polenta, pasta or as a vegetable side dish. 

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Mushrooms remind us of the hidden and dark parts of life. They grow in the dark, sometimes literally but always the figurative dark of wet forests and short days. The mycelium remind me that even when things look dead, like the spongy rotting logs that litter my beloved temperate rain forests, there is often much going on under the surface. The fruit will pop up only when it is ready and then it might just "mushroom" out, being so prolific we can't even believe that was just a pile of dry leaves three weeks ago. Mushrooms have completely unusual and fantastical shapes, colors, uses and jobs. They are, in short, simply unexpected and simply amazing. 
Forest Park Mushrooms

What unexpected and amazing things are popping up in your life right now? Are there mushrooms sprouting in your yard or some other neat natural growth in these dark days of winter? Do you have a favorite mushroom recipe or do you generally stay away from the fungus? Is this a time of hidden growth deep inside the rotting log of your life or are ideas or projects ready to mushroom out? Happy winter!

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Death Moon 2011:
The End of the Year, Favorites and Living in Relationship

Death Moon 2010:
Night and Day , Wear it As Long as Thou Canst, and Doggy Heaven (still makes me cry years later) 

Death Moon 2009: 
The Soldier and Death (one of my all time favorite posts!) and Moving From the Season of the Dead

Death Moon 2008: Full Moon in Taurus and Time is a Circle

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